The assumption of a new role inevitably involves a period of change for both the newcomer and his or her team. In addition to this, Bertrand Savary of Arnold & Son, Matthias Breschan of Longines, and Akio Naito of Seiko Watch Corporation had external challenges to contend with when they became heads of their respective manufacturers. Here, they share a glimpse of their priorities and early decisions when taking on a position of great responsibility in a time of crisis.
CEO, Arnold & Son
An engineering background followed by a master of business administration ensured that Bertrand Savary was uniquely suited for a career in watchmaking. Although his early dalliance with timepieces was quick and casual — he hopped onto the Swatch train as a pre-teen, attracted to the colourful models and queues outside the boutiques in Switzerland — an opportunity at Richemont proved he had the know-how to understand both the technical and commercial aspects of the field.
“There are over 600 watch brands present in Switzerland alone,” he says. “Most people are familiar with maybe one or two dozen. Prior to joining Citizen Group to head Arnold & Son, I knew the brand had a fantastic history, but what I’ve learnt since is that the wealth of its heritage is truly remarkable. John Arnold might be relatively unknown among the public but historians credit him as among the most important watchmakers in history because of his contributions to the industry. We’re now writing a book on the brand with a historian, and learning a lot along the way about John and his legacy.”
The 18th century English watchmaker was famed for his innovations, which include the modern application of the word “chronometer” (a precision timekeeper) and technical advancements that made possible the greater production of marine chronometers for use on board ships.
“In addition to that heritage, the brand also has its own calibres, which is rare for an independent company of this size and niche. All the components are there for it to be a great success,” continues the CEO, who joined the company in early March last year, just days before the first lockdowns were implemented.
“Owing to events unfolding at the time, we decided to work immediately on a three-year plan for our products, communications and network. All these are inextricably linked — they have to be able to work together,” he says. “It was the right call to start with the products, since that allowed us to refine the collections and make strategic decisions about them going forward.”
This includes further elevating the connotations of luxury surrounding each Arnold & Son timepiece. With the brand already celebrated for its exquisite craftsmanship and eye for detail, the new standards Savary is imposing will take this to another level with better finishing, strap quality and even the exact angles of protrusions, such as bezels or movement components. Every last detail should be aligned and in harmony with each other, he elaborates.
Collaborating with a team that he was new to could not have been easy, but the industry veteran remained unfazed. “I try to be the manager I wanted when I started working,” Savary says. “I don’t micromanage and we work very much as a team, which means we either fail together or succeed together. I try to cultivate an environment that has flexibility, autonomy, trust and respect, so everyone is better able to do what they need to do.
“While Covid-19 undoubtedly brought its share of hurdles, it was also a beneficial time for us, as it gave us the opportunity to slow down and really ask where we wanted to go in terms of product and brand identity. We strategised our visual merchandising, boutique designs [expect to hear of upcoming boutiques in China and the Middle East] and the different watch segments we want to occupy.
“We were, of course, affected by the pandemic but not as much as some of our peers. We have a strong presence in the Middle East, where domestic purchasing was still high, as the market was open, and revenge buying kicked in in the US market soon after it reopened. Europe is still slow for us; we need to improve our network here, but Asia has been quite stable.”
Growing demand in China, India and South America might quickly outstrip supply, as Arnold & Son currently produces fewer than 1,000 watches a year. But Savary and his team are adamant that no concessions be made that could compromise quality. The release of this year’s star novelty, the 28-piece limited-edition Luna Magna, is one such example. The moonphase complication features the largest rotating moon ever built into a wristwatch, and a voluminous satellite crafted from white marble and aventurine.
“It is a stunning watch,” he remarks. “There were so many challenges in finding the right stone and finishing and movement, but its immediate success confirmed the strategy we had in place. The Luna Magna’s release was delayed by seven months because we wanted to truly perfect the watch, and being part of a group like Citizen means we have the support not to push products into the market according to arbitrary deadlines, but to rework them until we are completely satisfied. In fact, I can tell you that we’ve almost never launched a watch on time, but it’s for a really good reason!”
When Matthias Breschan assumed the mantle at Longines in July 2020, he had more than two decades of experience in the watchmaking world guiding him. Previous stints at Rado and Hamilton, both Swatch Group sister brands, had honed his instincts while a genuine respect for Longines saw him want to do right by the brand.
“Longines is part of the big league in terms of distribution extent and product quality. I was also amazed by its history and heritage — the brand will soon celebrate its 190th anniversary,” says the new CEO. “Watchmaking is the only sector I know that builds on traditions to innovate and go further into the future, which is particularly true of Longines. All my decisions are meant to ensure the continuation of its adventures by steering it in directions that allow it to continue writing its story in bold letters, with pride and ambition.”
Coming into the company as the novel coronavirus was unleashing havoc on businesses globally posed a unique set of challenges, but Breschan focused on the positives. He says: “If 2020 had one merit, it would be that it fostered creativity. Communications went virtual, such as our digital rendezvous with the media, while our sales team organised digital presentations and directed customers to our e-commerce channels. In fact, our corporate e-commerce sites accounted for almost 10% of global sales last year. We’re planning to launch, by year end, dedicated sites in all countries where we have subsidiaries. Our objective is for sales this year to closely meet those of our record years of 2018/19.”
In fact, so optimistic is the captain of this ship that he discloses the company’s grand ambition of reaching US$2 billion (RM8.5 billion) in turnover by 2025. It is entirely doable, he insists, with the right product mix in place.
“There is a balance to maintain between classic and sports watches, as well as those for men and women,” he says. “We are fortunate to be able to rely on the industrial base of the Swatch Group to pursue this vision.”
A leader in its segment of watches priced between CHF1,000 (RM4,651) and CHF4,000, a key challenge here is to offer highly efficient and elegant products that interweave heritage and innovation. This year’s novelties exemplify this balancing act with a spread of new technology, designs and configurations. The Elegance segment, for instance, features new sizes, dials and straps for the La Grande Classique de Longines and Longines DolceVita, whereas the highlight of the Watchmaking Tradition segment is the retro Longines Silver Arrow, a reinterpretation of a 1950s model.
Updates to existing collections include the sporty Longines Avigation BigEye in titanium complete with grained and shaded blue dial and natural brown leather strap; new two-tone variations of the HydroConquest; the Longines Legend Diver Watch now in blue and brown; and a green dial added to the Longines Spirit collection.
“Of course, everyone has their personal favourites but mine is very much so The Legend Diver Watch because it says a lot about the brand and its diving heritage,” says Breschan. “It has an extremely distinctive look and feel. Since its initial release in 1959, we have always been faithful to its aesthetics.”
Though more than half a century old, the Legend Diver’s design remains very much relevant. This timelessness is a trait that echoes through all Longines timepieces, which secures its appeal across generations.
“Our customers are not only looking for a refined product of outstanding value, but also something enduring and authentic that reflects their personal values and style. A watch is a symbol, an emotion. Wearing a Longines timepiece sends a clear message: My watch has a story to tell, just as I have something to tell you!”
President, Seiko Watch Corp
Since Grand Seiko separated from Seiko in 2017, it has strived to be recognised for its distinctive identity, a mission Akio Naito undertook with earnestness when he stepped into the role of corporation president in April this year.
Previously the company’s senior executive vice-president, Naito was already familiar with the luxury brand’s potential for growth and is making it his mission to share its story widely with the world. Seiko equally holds his attention, with a focus on communicating the tenets of star collections such as Prospex, Presage, Astron and Seiko 5 Sports.
“For these to happen, I believe we need to accelerate the digitalisation of both brands with cutting-edge technologies and strategies,” he says. “In 2020, for instance, we launched the Grand Seiko online boutiques in Paris, London, Sydney and Shanghai. Seiko online stores will be expanded in more markets, including Malaysia. These platforms allow consumers to experience our worlds and services virtually, and we will continue to invest in them. Also, to reflect these changing times as the company turns 140 years old this year, I aim to create a new work style and environment, one in which all our employees are highly motivated to fulfil their potential.”
Among the challenges he faces are familiarising himself with the domestic Japanese market and grappling with fierce competition from Swiss brands in the luxury segment and the penetration of smartwatches.
“I’m confident about the expertise of my staff in tackling these and am therefore not inclined to interfere unless necessary,” says Naito. “The pandemic saw us attempt new initiatives such as direct marketing and online concierge services so customers can purchase watches from the comfort of their homes. Lockdowns hindered manufacturing, which delayed the release of some models, but it has almost recovered to pre-Covid levels. I have to admit that we had an extremely challenging year with many trials and errors, but things are now on track. I am cautiously optimistic about 2021.”
He has reason to be, with this milestone anniversary creating a golden opportunity for Grand Seiko and Seiko to showcase their watchmaking expertise. Naito names the elegant SLGH005 from the Grand Seiko Heritage Collection as the most innovative and artistic release among this year’s novelties.
“It perfectly showcases the experience and watchmaking skills nurtured and passed down throughout our watchmaking history,” shares the president of the collection that was inspired by the white birch forests near the studio in Shizukuishi, where all Grand Seiko mechanical watches are crafted. “It also offers a new perspective on Grand Seiko’s brand philosophy, the Nature of Time, and features our new Hi-beat 36000 80 Hours Calibre 9SA5 for the first time in our core luxury collection. To celebrate our 140th anniversary, we had planned special releases within our key collections as well as hosted commemorative events such as a celebration in Ginza, Tokyo, and a virtual event in Malaysia earlier in the year.”
Clients are paying more attention to Grand Seiko watches than ever, following the brand’s exceptional performance in the auction circuit recently. The phenomenon delights Naito, who believes this high regard among the vintage and pre-owned market signifies a deep appreciation for its enduring watchmaking reputation.
“Since its launch in 1960, Grand Seiko has embodied the Japanese concept of ‘Dō’, or ‘the way’. It means that once a task is decided upon, the Japanese mind will seek to fulfil it meticulously with a passion and dedication that can lead to truly outstanding heights of achievement,” he says. “You can find ‘Dō’ in various forms of Japanese culture, such as Kadō, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, or the Sadō tea ceremony. Grand Seiko joins this proud tradition by accepting its inherent responsibility to rise to new challenges in craftsmanship, ingenuity and skills, making the ultimate timepieces through this uniquely Japanese approach.”
This article first appeared on Aug 23, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.